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By Suresh Menon
To paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana, those who don’t see patterns are condemned to repeating them. India played nine Tests abroad last year in four countries of varying strengths, a strong South Africa, a weak West Indies, an evolving England and an Australian team in some disarray. And the results have been the same.
We can’t pretend any more. India’s famous middle order, far from being the strength of the team, is actually a weak link. And the bowling attack, much maligned and denounced at regular intervals, has delivered more than was expected of it. India’s biggest worry at the start of each tour was to find a bowling combination to claim 20 wickets in a match. Yet, despite the absence of Zaheer Khan in England, India claimed 20 wickets in five of nine matches.
If the threesome of Dravid-Tendulkar-Laxman hasn’t copped much criticism it is because of past services and the fact that Dravid’s second coming in England was so fascinating. Indian fans were forced to return to the bad old days when the odd individual success was celebrated as compensation for the collective failure of the team.
There has also been the distraction of Tendulkar’s 100th century, as much for the batsman himself as for those around. When it comes, as it surely must (although there is a charm about the figure 99 in cricket!), it will stand alongside Jim Laker’s 19 wickets in a Test as the unbreakable record in the game. But now it is not mere idle speculation to wonder if the Tests in 2011 might have been less embarrassing had the great man made that cross-over century in the World Cup.
The Indian statistics are as puzzling as they are embarrassing. In 18 innings, they went past 300 just thrice, which for the ‘best batting team in the world’ is stunning under-achievement. Dravid and Tendulkar average around 48 for the period, and Laxman 29. Dravid in England, Laxman briefly in the West Indies and Tendulkar in the first Test at Melbourne have shown glimpses of breaking out, but consistency has been a factor. The most experienced middle order in the world doesn’t inspire awe in the opposition. Young bowlers want to get at them quickly and put their scalps on their cv.
Besides the middle order, questions must be asked of the coach Duncan Fletcher. What is his plan for Indian cricket? How does he hope to turn things around? Fletcher’s allergy to the media is at the other end of the scale from Greg Chappell’s manner of courting it. Somewhere in between would be nice – a coach who spoke sensibly when needed and had a definite plan for the team.
The manner in which the rival fast bowlers have been choking India’s runs, keeping their stroke players in check and capitalising on the impatience of the frustrated batsmen has been fascinating to watch. But coaches are meant to counter such tactics with tactics of their own. This has not happened.
India’s medium pacers, from Sreeshanth and Praveen Kumar to Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav have not been properly feted for their efforts. By claiming 20 wickets five times, they have made nonsense of all pre-tour predictions. The combinations might have changed from series to series, but they have been largely effective (even in England they dismissed the opposition for 221 in Nottingham before India lost their grip).
Allowing Australia’s tail to wag at Melbourne might have taken the Test away from India; yet it was not the defeat so much as the manner of it which has brought all the old demons in India’s collective subconscious flooding back.
India are aware that a win in Sydney can overturn everything. After five away defeats in a row, they live in hope. That is as much a tribute to what their middle order has achieved over a decade and a half as it is to what their new bowling attack is capable of.